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Working For the Revolution: The Politics of Visibility

June 8, 2012

Under what conditions can collective action occur among Egypt’s laborers? Under what conditions can it succeed?

Labor actions don’t take place in a vacuum. Even in a situation like Mubarak’s Egypt, where neither the political parties nor the federation of unions represents workers, collective action only takes place under exceptional circumstances.

The Egyptian uprising, and its aftermath, provided those circumstances.

That was one of the key points I got from Marie Duboc’s talk “The Egyptian Labour Movement and the Politics of Visibility” at the international conference ‘The Egyptian Revolution, One Year On: Causes, Characteristics and Fortunes’ held on 18 and 19 May 2012 at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University.

The role of labor in the Egyptian uprising has been undercovered in the world’s media, but has played a very important role in the revolution.In particular, it provided a number of ways for labor to make itself visible on the political scene.

The beginning of the twenty-first century was a period of exceptional contention and mobilization in Egypt starting with demonstrations against the US-led invasion of Iraq and protests denouncing Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime and his attempts to designate his son, Gamal, as successor. Workers have also voiced their grievances through strikes, sit-ins and other forms of protest against poor living conditions caused by the erosion of wages, rising inflation and precarious employment. With two million Egyptians protesting in the workplace, these actions have been the largest wave of labor action since the fifties.

What, you never heard about any of it? Don’t blame the US media–Egyptian state media didn’t cover it either. There have been thousands of strikes, but most of them are rendered invisible to the wider public because there is little communication about them. Often, even other unions don’t know when one union strikes.

The Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), a state-controlled organization designed to control rather than represent workers, recognized only one of the 1,900 protests that took place during the last seven years.

The struggle by workers to demonstrate their grievances to the wider society, and the power of the government to curtail public knowledge of labor unrest Duboc calls “the politics of visibility.”

Over the last several years, though, the rise of the independent press and television has made labor actions more visible. So has social media. Remember that the April 6th Movement, one of the most important organizers of the uprising, began as a Facebook page calling people to demonstrate in solidarity with a worker’s strike (after which the movement took on a life of its own).

Protests by workers in Egypt generally occur without the participation of the trade unions that ostensible represent these workers, and without the support of opposition political parties.

The Muslim Brotherhood Duboc characterized as “cooperatist,” by which she meant that when a union or syndicate, such as the doctors, go on strike, doctors who are members of the  Muslim Brotherhood will strike with their colleagues, but the organization will not officially support the strike.

In 2009, the tax collectors formed the first independent union. Since then, several new unions have been created, challenging the leadership of the state-controlled “official” unions.

There are still crucial problems for unions in the politics of visibility.

  1. On the one hand, labor grievances are symptomatic of the economic problems that many people are experiencing. On the other hand, strikes and other labor protests are not coordinated across national labor groups within the same trade, much less wider interunion cooperation. Labor struggles remain fragmented and localized.
  2. Strikes are still aimed at the state rather than the private corporations that now own many of the former state companies. The workers still employ arguments rooted in the old “Nasserist moral economy” in which the state is supposed to ensure workers a fair standard of living.

Bottom line: The revolution shook a lot of things up, not the least labor unions. But many of the old problems remain, and its not clear how labor movements will evolve in post-Mubarak Egypt.

You can listen to a podcast of Marie Duboc’s talk here.

And if you have iTunes, you can also watch the talk here.

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